The Gauhati High Court’s rejection of residency certificates issued by panchayat secretaries in rural areas, has far-reaching implications for the NRC update exercise in Assam. The ruling at one stroke nixes the validity of such certificates as supporting document for inclusion in the tiol Register for Citizens. The NRC authority accepts as linkage document residency certificate issued by the panchayat secretary and countersigned by the block development officer, to females from rural areas who have migrated after marriage. Similarly females migrating from urban areas after marriage, can furnish residency certificate issued by the circle officer. Around 45 lakh such certificates are learnt to have been submitted to the NRC authority, so the applicants concerned will now have to furnish other documents. This means the NRC update exercise, presently in verification phase involving nearly 7 crore documents submitted by applicants, will take far longer. Surely this is for a good cause, for there can be no compromise with an error-free NRC. Assam has, after all, paid heavily for lakhs of foreigners maging to register themselves as voters in successive electoral rolls. Past governments have bent every rule in the book and deputed the administrative machinery to subvert the election process and make citizens out of foreigners. The High Court’s latest ruling is strongly worded, asking the need for creating another supporting document when other documents are already there to be furnished as proof of residency and linkage.
The legal question arose over a woman from Dhubri, declared a ‘foreign tiol’ by the Foreigners Tribul there, moving Gauhati High Court to challenge that ruling. She furnished a residency certificate issued by a panchayat secretary, and on examining it, the HC bench summoned the State Panchayat Commissioner Secretary as well as the NRC State Coorditor to state their positions. After going through their depositions, the High Court has made it clear that residency certificates issued by panchayat secretaries have no constitutiol sanctity. These are not public documents, as no records are maintained. Rather, these documents are ‘persol’ in ture, needing to be corroborated further with other supporting documents by the applicant. Under the Panchayat Act of 1994, a panchayat secretary has no powers to issue such a certificate. If he issues a residency certificate, he will have to bear responsibility for it. In case a person furnishing such a document is declared a foreigner, both the panchayat secretary issuing the document as well as the BDO counter-signing it will be held responsible, the High Court has ruled while dismissing the woman’s petition.
The judgment turns the searchlight onto the circumstances under which the cabinet sub-committee included such residency certificates among 16 supporting documents deemed acceptable for NRC exercise. Ideally, the supporting documents should have been those in use at the time of NRC cut-off date of 24 March, 1971, but the Assam government later on should have exercised proper care in ensuring the legality of other supporting documents. This it failed to do regarding residency certificate by panchayat secretaries. Reserving a part of its ruling for the NRC exercise, the High Court has now asked whether it was at all proper for the State government to empower panchayat secretaries to issue a new category of NRC linkage documents, when the Supreme Court is concerned with the challenges facing the NRC exercise in Assam. In the backdrop of ‘interl disturbance’-like situation threatening the State due to continued influx and the lack of political goodwill to address it, any move like empowering panchayat secretaries to issue official documents will only go against tiol interest. It is this larger view is coming through in the High Court’s ruling. How the Central and Assam governments respond to it will determine whether the NRC update exercise will at all be a foolproof document, or whether it will merely be another instrument for more votebank politics.